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                                   De-barnicalisation and Re-inculturation


In its voyage across the ocean of time or journey through the waters of history the hull of the bark of St Peter inevitably gets encrusted with barnacles from the civilisations and cultures it passes through.

Examples would be the sedia gestatoria on which the popes used to be carried into St Peters and the flabellae or ostrich feather fans which accompanied him.   Another example would be the bishop’s or cardinal’s capa magna a kind of cloak with a long train carried by an altar boy used on solemn occasions to emphasise the exalted nature or dignity of the episcopal office.

These ‘barnacles’ were not bad in themselves and they could have a practical purpose.  The sedia gestatoria was a kind of early pope-mobile before the age of cars, a way of ensuring that  when the pope came into St Peters for a solemn high mass as many people as possible could see him.

But over and above this they showed the way in which a particular age or culture gave expression to fundamental ideas like sovereignty,authority, dignity, solemnity, magnanimity and so on.  They are not or were not essential for the Church in expressing or getting her message across.  But they helped in the particular culture, time or place in which she found herself.  Today this adoption  for religious purposes of symbols taken from secular life is called inculturation.

For most of her history the Church has been encultured in monarchical, aristocratic or oligargic societies with the characteristic barnacles attaching to her hull.  Kissing the Pope’s slipper or an episcopal ring would be another example.

However, increasingly over the last two hundred years she has been sailing into waters where the prevailing ideas about government, social organisation and the relationship of men and women to each other are egalitarian and democratic.  It is therefore to meet this situation that Bl. Paul VI and his successors started the process of ‘debarnicalisation’ which Pope Francis is merely carrying on faster and more radically.  Indeed the 2nd Vatican Council could in some respects be seen as a massive work of re-inculturation, particularly in its reform of the liturgy.

The problem is that there are certain currently unfashionable ideas which neither the Church nor common sense can entirely dispense with.  Hierarchy is one of them.  Authority and subordination are others.  Children will remain subordinate to their parents up to a certain age in any sane society

As the head of one of the congregations in Rome said to me in the 1980s with something like exasperation when on behalf of The Wanderer I spoke to him about some of the way-out things that were being taught in certain US seminaries: “Don’t the Americans realise  that the Church isn’t a democracy.”

God ---are we to say, unfortunately ?--- isn’t an elected president and bowing to him or kneeling before him is not a derogation of human dignity but a prerequisite for it.

However, in so far as some re-inculturation is necessary, there are shifts of emphasis which can help and others which have already been made.   The Synods of bishops in Rome every few years are an example.  Introduced in the wake of the Council, their object is to give the entire episcopate a role in the government of the universal church.  Their decisions do not bind the pope.  They are consultative.  But their views are seriously considered by him and summarised in a post-synodal document addressed to the whole Church.

Also, fundamental to the Church has always been a strongly populist dimension.  Indeed, are we not the populus dei?

In the Church, the poor and unimportant, the little ones are in a sense our aristocracy whom those is authority exist to serve.  ‘The last shall be first and the first last.’ ‘Blessed are the poor’ not the rich.  And ‘I thank thee,Father, for hiding these things from the wise and prudent and revealing them to little ones.’ One thinks of the deacon St Laurence who when asked be the Roman authorities to hand over the ‘treasures of the Church’ presented himself with a crowd of poor people.

Related to all this is the notion of the sensus fidei  and Newman’s idea about consulting the faithful in matters of doctrine.  Neither of these ideas means that the faithful determine by some voting process what is to be believed, or can change doctrine to conform to the spirit of the times.  Nor can they replace the magisterium as final arbiters of  belief.  But, together with their priests, and under their bishops, they are not a purely passive component of the Mystical Body.  Here is how the  CCC describes the situation under the heading ‘The Supernatural Sense of Faith’.    

“All the faithful share in understanding and handing on revealed truth.  They have received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, who instructs them and guides them into all truth.  The whole body of the faithful …  cannot err in matters of belief.  This characteristic is shown when ‘from the bishops to the last of the faithful’ they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.”

This is why before proclaiming the dogma of the Immaculate Conception Bl Pius X asked the bishops of the word to let him know that what they and their priests and people together  believed about the matter.

In spite of all this, de-barnicalisation and re-inculturation remain an extremely tricky business.  How are the majesty and holiness of God or the Eucharistic Mystery for instance to be expressed in terms of a western secularist pop-star celeb culture without serious damage to the peoples’ faith and practice?  How are we to express devotion and loyalty to our Father’s in God if we are not to kiss their rings?  Give them a bear hug?  But that only expresses fondness, not happy obedience to their fatherly authority.  I humbly suggest that re-enculturation carried out wisely and safely should be a major prayer intention throughout the Church.

This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reproduced with the publisher's kind permission. www.thewandererpress.com

Copyright © Philip Trower 2015

Version: 9th May 2015

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